Seventy years ago, a small band of intrepid flyers faded into the night sky over wartime Lincolnshire; those who returned just under six hours later found they had made aviation history. These were the Lancaster crews of 617 Squadron, Royal Air Force, since dubbed The Dam Busters.
Historians have debated the impact of the Rhur dams mission, flown during the night of 16-17 May 1943, but several facts are incontrovertible. The raid’s commander, a strong-willed and inspiring Wing Commander (Lieutenant-Colonel) called Guy Gibson, was asked only on 18 March to undertake the dams raid, and therefore had under two months in which to assemble a hand-picked squadron, train them, and undertake the task, codenamed Operation Chastise.
The dams, which supplied water and hydroelectric power to the Rhur industrial area of Nazi Germany, were to be attacked with specially-designed bouncing bombs which had not been used in action before, dropped from modified bombers at night from a height of just 60 feet: the odds were stacked against success.
In the event, two of Gibson’s targets, the Möhne and Eder dams, were successfully breached but eight of the nineteen attacking Lancasters failed to return, with a loss of 53 out of 133 aircrew killed – a casualty rate of 40%.
That the mission was successful (Gibson was awarded a Victoria Cross for it) was a reflection of the young commander’s personal leadership. Operating in an impossibly short timeframe, Gibson had to inspire his squadron – ground crew, as well as aircrew. His simple technique has since been described by Professor Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame University in the USA: “…The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision…It's got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion…”.
Already exhausted – a tour of operations was usually 30 missions, and Gibson has already flown 172 – the 24 year-old Wing Commander nevertheless developed the skills of his crews, training them to flight low at night in specially-modified aircraft. He forged his personnel, picked from many different squadrons, into a team. And against all odds, he delivered a stunning success. Gibson delivered what many modern leaders aspire to achieve. His methods, which won the Dam Busters their everlasting fame, correspond precisely to John Adair’s three principles of Action-centred leadership: